I used to walk the bombing ranges of southern Arizona. Sometimes I had permission, out doing field research in the deep Sonoran Desert. And sometimes I walked illegally, with no one knowing I was there, avoiding loud booms and bright flashes of light, camping in ragged canyons where nobody ever goes. Drumbeats of bombs sounded in the distance.
Other than unexploded missiles and a strew of brass shells lying about — and the infrequent crater where a fighter jet had crashed — the bombing ranges had an air of pristine wilderness. No roads, no ATVs, no trails. I walked in enchanted isolation, arroyos and sand washes winding toward the horizons, untouched but for my footsteps. What was the chance of getting hit by a bomb or strafed by a jet, anyway? The land went on forever, hundreds of thousands of square miles. I figured the odds were in my favor.
The only real danger might come from being too close to a sonic boom. From half a mile away, the shockwave of a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier can blow people off their feet. It can shatter windows, knock people unconscious. But I felt somehow immune, as if the world of war and technology could not touch me in this uninhabited country.
Carrying water, I walked across a long basin, aiming for a blistering mountain range 10 or 15 miles distant, a day or more away. The only sound was the soft rhythm of my footsteps hour after hour. I passed carcasses of bombing targets, their twisted metal long since chewed apart by erosion and winds, far steadier forces of destruction than any explosive we can devise. Humans seemed to have no place here.
I don’t know why I paused and turned my head. Perhaps I saw something out of the corner of my eye, something just out of my conscious range. Or maybe I just felt like I was being watched. I looked south and noticed something moving way out there, a speck floating off the ground. It glinted silently in the sun like glass. I squinted and saw it was getting bigger. Then I realized it was an F-16 fighter jet skimming the deck of the desert, headed straight for me.
Those jets have a top speed of 1,500 miles per hour; it was not something I could have been mentally prepared for. It was no more than 30 feet off the ground, coming at me too fast for reason.
The pilot could not possibly have known I was there, not at the speed he was flying. I was nothing, a piece of the landscape, as inconspicuous as any cactus. I realized that I had maybe two seconds before the jet split the sky just over my head. I was not ready. My mind was settled into long days of walking, tracking the sun as shadows turned around me, witnessing stars circling the axis of the earth.
I braced my feet a shoulder’s width apart, knowing that something was about to happen that would bypass every cell in my rational mind, something I could not physically fathom no matter what I told myself. I inhaled and kept my breath. I held on to myself.
The distant fleck swelled instantly into an airplane, filling my entire sky. Suddenly the air exploded. The deafening concussion hit me, shooting through my bones into the ground. My body tried to run, but in all directions at once. The plane’s shadow cut me like a whip.
I swear I could see the screws on the underside of the fuselage. At some thousand miles per hour, a blink of a quarter second, I don’t think it was possible. Still, they swept across my eyes in all their greasy detail.
My brain stem lashed electricity straight down my spine. Then, the plane was gone. That fast, as if it were never here to begin with.
I seemed to be intact, my heart still beating, my eardrums unruptured. But I could still hear the explosive roar in my bones.
I turned, looking north. The jet was already a dot on the horizon, then I couldn’t see it at all.
As strange as it sounds, I felt as if I had just witnessed a natural phenomenon. It was like a sudden rockslide, an earthquake, a particularly violent dust devil hurling twigs and stones into the sky. A stillness poured in behind the jet, like water filling a hole. In this new calm I began walking again, placing one foot, then the other. I continued across the desert at my own slow, subsonic pace, the wilderness unchanged.
Craig Childs is a winner of the Colorado Book Award, and a commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.